Thursday, April 21, 2011

Intimacy: A Single Cell

I got your attention with that title, didn’t I? Notice how intimacy has become a code word for sex in our society? Yes, it can refer to what we do in the bedroom, but what I am talking about is the more traditional definition: “a close association with or detailed knowledge or deep understanding of.”

True intimacy comes from allowing yourself to be vulnerable, opening up and sharing what you are going through. We often hide our feelings because we are ashamed of them, feel needy if we express them, or think that we are the only people who feel this way. It is only by opening up to someone else authentically that we can really connect.

Yes, anyone can read our Facebook status and know what we are up to, but we rarely post what we are really FEELING. I’m not knocking the value of social media for sharing information and keeping in touch, but it is not a tool that promotes intimacy. I can post this column on my Facebook page, and give readers a deeper insight into my thoughts and feelings, but true intimacy doesn’t come through a computer screen or a text message. The feelings are much too complicated and personal to be effectively expressed through those mediums.

Intimacy requires you to take a risk, and allow yourself to share what you are feeling. Have you ever had this thought: I want to call my friend, but I haven’t talked to her in a while, and I am calling now because I am struggling. I can’t call just to dump my problems on her again. I should wait until I’m feeling happier? Here’s a tip for you – that is precisely when you should reach out to someone in your life. Friends are not just there for the good times, and they want to be allowed in when we are going through something difficult. That is what true intimacy is.

A friend disclosed to me once that she had been avoiding being in touch because, “I am your funny friend. The one who makes you laugh, and lightens the mood, and I just haven’t been feeling that way lately.” I was surprised at how strong my reaction was to this. I was actually angry that she had shut me out when she was going through something difficult and needed me the most. Once she was open about what was going on, it made it easier for me to share my struggles, and we had one of the deepest and most meaningful conversations we had ever had. That wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been able to share her fears and insecurities.

So often in life we put on a happy face, push down our real feelings and wear a mask that hides from the outside world (and even those closest to us) what is really going on. Every time we do this, we miss an opportunity to truly connect with another human being. Perhaps the most surprising thing about vulnerability is that it rarely goes unreciprocated. When we open up about something in our lives that is causing us pain, it gives others permission to do the same.

Think about all the times you have felt a certain way, but felt scared to express it for whatever reason. So instead, you make an assumption about what is really going on, you beat yourself up for your role, or more likely, you make someone else wrong for “making you” feel this way. Sometimes we don’t share because we think that what we have to say will hurt someone’s feelings, or make them angry or push them away. But when we share authentically, without blame or judgment, we instead open up an opportunity for a deeper connection.

How much better would our relationships be if instead of suppressing our feelings or morphing them into something else – most anger comes from a place of hurt – we just shared them in the moment, with as much clarity and vulnerability as we could?

Instead of exploding in anger and blaming someone else for not calling when they said they would, imagine yourself saying, “I was really hurt that you didn’t call yesterday. Even though our plans were vague, we had agreed to spend the day together, and I am sad that we missed out on that time with each other.” Feel like weakness to “let someone off the hook” in this way? Think for a minute about what your response to a statement like the one above might be.

Then consider what your comeback would look like if you had heard this instead. “You are such a jerk! We had plans yesterday, and you totally blew me off! Did you think I had nothing better to do than sit around and wait for you? I can’t even believe I am with you. You are so insensitive.”

Both statements come from the same feelings, but the first is more authentic and feels WAY scarier because it comes from a place of vulnerability. The second masquerades as coming from a place of strength, which feels safer to us. One puts the other person on the defensive, creating distance, while the other allows an opening for not just a more civil discussion, but a more productive one.

Human nature is to “protect ourselves,” through saving face, wearing the mask and playing strong. It takes far more courage and strength to allow ourselves to be vulnerable by expressing what we are really feeling. Practice it the next time you find yourself in a situation like this. Once you see what happens when you respond differently, you will be hooked because of the results you create. I wrote a few months ago about love and survival, and the role that real connection plays in our health and well-being. It is only through allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable that we can create the kind of deep connection we crave.